Dear Debra: Digital Dilemmas
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For years, I’ve rented a summer house up north for the kids and grandkids to come for a week’s visit. We cover the cost of the rental, most meals and split with each family their transportation costs to and from.
After last summer’s experience, I’m ready to cancel. The grandchildren and their parents spent more time on their cell phones and iPads than with each other or my wife and me. It felt like pulling teeth to go to the beach or biking or any of the things we used to enjoy together. The parents have trained their kids to “plug in” at restaurants so they can have grown-up time. I don’t want to destroy a family tradition, but I don’t want another summer where everyone is more focused on their screens than on each other. When we see each other during the year, it’s the same thing. I’m fed up.
— Throwing in the [Beach] Towel
Dear Beach Towel,
Though indispensable, all these electronic devices increasingly challenge togetherness. Articles abound on how children and teens are losing — and don’t even develop — the interpersonal skills we take for granted.
But before you spend next year’s deposit on a new set of clubs, talk to each of your kids, in person if you can, and by phone if not. (No texts or emails!) Don’t come on with full-bore blame. Instead, mention as neutrally as possible that the cell phones, iPads, etc., seemed to get in the way of activities you used to enjoy together. Stress how much you enjoyed seeing everyone and how you look forward to being together again.
Lay a foundation of electronic-free times when you get together during the year. Have a basket ready for the grandkids to put their devices in when they visit. Then get busy with games, activities and going places. Bring along books and activities that you can play while waiting for your meals at restaurants. Do the same at next summer’s gathering.
It’s futile and unreasonable to ban the devices, but you can establish times when they are to be put aside. Make a restaurant rule — the first person to pull out his or her cell pays for everyone’s meal. Babysit the grandkids for a night or two so their parents can have their grown-up time. Be consistent and patient.
Might I also suggest that Shabbat offers the perfect opportunity to disengage? Judaism gave us the answer to all the e-distractions before there were iPhones. Try going 24/6 instead of 24/7. The goal here is to gather lovingly. Hopefully you can adjust course and next summer’s visit will be smooth sailing.
My sister sends me dozens of texts a day, all of them of pending disasters or things ripped from the Enquirer. Here’s a sampling of today’s texts: 1. Frozen dead revived by cures! 2. New technology promises we can translate our pets’ language into English! 3. Nostradamus’ prophecies — five more to be fulfilled!
These texts are stupid, distracting and sometimes, like the one of nuclear missiles falling on NYC, are very frightening. I have asked her to stop but she won’t. Other than blocking her entirely, what can I do?
— Text Me Not
Dear Text Me Not,
My first thought is to ask how else you and your sister relate. If you live in the same town, do you get together on a regular basis? Do you catch up by phone or email?
Perhaps these texts are her way of saying she misses you. Before you go the extreme route of blocking her, make time to go out to lunch. Call her a couple of times a week and see if giving her attention in these ways reduces her texting. If not, block her texts for a couple of weeks and see what happens.
My other thoughts on this subject veer toward your sister’s mental health. How else does she spend her time? Does she have a job? A family to raise? What else is filling her life in a positive way? Has something changed that might be affecting her negatively?
These are hard questions with possibly difficult answers. Her texts might not be stupid, distracting or terrifying but cries for help.
Please consider contacting NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Health for some guidance at (800) 950-NAMI or email@example.com. *
Debra Darvick shares her unique take on life, books and more at debradarvick.com.